Meditations on Library Leadership for the Post-Pandemic Era
by Karen Holt
Abstract: As we emerge from the pandemic, librarians have a rare opportunity to rebuild our relationships, spaces, and services. Medical Library Director, Karen Holt considers a variety of ways library leaders can embrace connection, flexibility, and meaning to increase employee satisfaction and engagement in the months ahead.
From the early days of the pandemic when we had no idea if circulating a book meant putting lives at risk to planning workflows for our suddenly virtual team, library leaders have had to adapt to incredible amounts of change in a very short amount of time. We have shouldered a huge amount of responsibility as we have been responsible for the health and safety of our teams and our community while trying to meet the expectations of our organization. Now that vaccinations are increasing and COVID case loads are falling, we can shift from focusing on the health and safety of our staff and patrons to the more creative task of rebuilding our organizations to fit the post-pandemic world. I’m starting to feel hopeful about the future for the first time in a long time, and I can’t wait to have a buzzing library full of students again.
As I look toward our post-pandemic future, I believe that being a successful leader in the post-pandemic period will require an ability to foster connection, provide stability, speak honestly, support flexibility, and give meaning to the work we do. As a leader I know that everything I do and say has an impact on my team, and one of the most important things that I can do at this time is to mirror a positive, can-do, open attitude that builds the esprit de corps in my library. Some days that has definitely been more difficult to do than others. As we move into this new era, I am working to incorporate a growth mindset. I’m working to not just grow our patron numbers or reference stats, but to also grow our connection to each other, to our community, and to our mission.
Taking time to appreciate each other, building flexibility into our workplace, and sharing stories about how we change lives are some of the things that I think will be crucial to our post-pandemic work life. After months of being sequestered, gathering in person is more meaningful now than ever before. However, like many people, I also worry that I don’t know how to have conversations anymore. To combat this I think that building fun team activities into our work week can be an important way to build connection and deepen the personal bonds that will lay the foundation for employee engagement in this new era. Having a regular, informal gathering, like a weekly coffee time, is a great way to check in on each other and spark serendipitous connection. Activities like forming small discussion groups on interesting ideas can encourage both connection and team growth, and if you are in a larger library you can use small groups to connect colleagues who don’t regularly work together. You could even plan a potluck so that those people who enhanced their cooking and baking skills over the last year can show off a bit. Nothing brings people together like food.
With the prevalence of burnout and demotivation from the daily mental and physical demands of the pandemic, we all need something to look forward to right now, both in our personal and work lives. We can provide that for our teams by encouraging them to pursue opportunities that play to their individual strengths and interests, ideally leading to a more personally meaningful work life. I think that we also have the opportunity to re-examine our feedback models and incorporate a style of feedback that focuses on the things our employees do well as opposed to things they need to correct. In the Harvard Business Review article “The Feedback Fallacy”, the authors found that constructive criticism is ineffectual, since first, “learning rests on our grasp of what we’re doing well, not on what we’re doing poorly, and certainly not on someone else’s sense of what we’re doing poorly. And second, that we learn most when someone else pays attention to what’s working within us and asks us to cultivate it intelligently” (Buckingham & Goodall, 2019, p. 95). It’s a thought-provoking read and I highly recommend it. (There’s a link to it below.)
So many of us need support and encouragement right now. At a time when our brains have been stressed by adapting to so much change, danger, and uncertainty, meaningful work with positive feedback focused on our own individual displays of excellence offers a way to lower stress levels while providing the possibility for truly transformational change in our work environment.
Now that many of us have become used to working from home, I don’t think that there is a way to go back to office space as usual. What we can do instead is build a hybrid workplace that better meets the needs of our team. Not only is it important for employee satisfaction to allow people to continue working from home at an interval that is appropriate for your library, it will also be important to find ways to incorporate the things that people enjoyed while working from home, namely privacy, autonomy, health and well-being, into our work environments (McLaurin, 2021). Making a change like this means a complete rethinking of our spaces, but it is one that I know is long overdue in my library. So, let’s turn this moment into an exciting opportunity to revamp our workplaces and make them places that blend the best of working from home with the serendipitous encounters that can only occur in the office.
It’s strange to think that early last year I was focused solely on things like showing my library’s ROI to administrators, increasing usage, and continually innovating. While those things still matter, I believe that as we move into an era that none of us have ever experienced before, deepening our connection to each other and imbuing our work with meaning for ourselves and our staff matter even more.
Buckingham, M. & Goodall, A. (2019, March-April). The feedback fallacy. Harvard Business Review, 99(3), 92-101.
McLaurin, J. (2020, December 7). Five trends driving the new post-pandemic workplace.
Gensler dialogue BLOG,
Copyright 2021 by Karen Holt.
About the Author: Karen Holt is currently the Director of the Medical Library at the Baptist School of Health Professions in San Antonio, Texas. She has previously worked as the Head of the NATO Multimedia Library at NATO Headquarters in Brussels, the Technical Services Librarian at Northwestern University in Qatar, and as the Head of Reference and Instructional Services at the University of Texas-Pan American.